By: Joey Schneider, KCOU Sports
Less than two weeks ago, the Cardinals were in desperate need of a rally to keep their playoff hopes alive. With NLCS elimination on the line, the Cardinals sent up hot-hitting pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras in hopes to break open a 3-3 ninth inning tie with two outs and the bases loaded.
The San Fransisco Giants countered by bringing in lefty specialist Jeremy Affeldt from the bullpen, and the rookie outfielder bounced into a groundout three pitches later. San Francisco won on a 6-3 walk-off home run in the bottom half of the inning and advanced to the 2014 World Series with the victory. Oscar Taveras was the last Cardinal out in St. Louis’s brutal NLCS beating, but little did Cardinal fans think it would be the last out of his career.
Taveras’s agent Bryan Mejia confirmed Sunday that the 22-year old outfielder and his girlfriend passed away after a car accident in Dominican Republic, his native home. When the news got out through social media, the tragedy not only left Cardinals fans in shock, but a large population of baseball fans across the country as well.
Taveras became the third active Major League Baseball player to pass away before 25 years of age in the last five years. Angels’ pitcher Nick Adenhart died in a 2009 car accident and Mariners’ outfielder Greg Halman was stabbed to death in 2011. While the Cardinals have experienced similar situations with the deaths of Darryl Kile (2002) and Josh Hancock (2007) recently, the loss of Baseball America’s 2014 #2 prospect proves to bigger blow to the sport beyond St. Louis. The death of Oscar Taveras is a wake-up call for athletes to embrace America’s pastime with a sense of teamwork, effort and passion before their careers are cut short.
Last season did not prove to be easy for the rookie outfielder, but Taveras’s .239 AVG, 3 HRs and 22 RBIs were something to build off given his circumstances. The outfielder was demoted after a slow start in first 11 games, and didn’t get a chance to consistently start full time until slumping outfielder Allen Craig was traded to the Boston Red Sox in mid-July.
Despite hitting .259 after the All-Star break, Taveras found himself in a right field platoon with Randal Grichuk down the stretch and was strictly used as a pinch-hitter in the postseason. Yet he showed poise off the bench in October, hitting .429 a combined .429 in both playoff series and contributing in NLCS Game 2 with a game-tying home run.
The rookie must have been upset with his limited role throughout the year, but developed himself as a team player by making gradual improvements throughout the long haul of 2014. Not to mention he remained professional after being heavily criticized by the media in his first year.
The big leagues were a huge adjustment for Taveras. After spending six years in the Cardinals farm system, he was able to grow as a ballplayer after personal setbacks. Throughout his time in the minors, Taveras hit 53 HRs, drove in 324 RBIs and slashed a .320 batting average. He won Cardinals’ Minor League Player of the year award twice, which earned him an opportunity to hone the birds on the bat.
If his minor league accomplishments aren’t indicative enough of his effort, just ask Giants’ outfielder Juan Perez, who was teammates with Taveras in last year’s winter Dominican league. When Perez was informed of his buddy’s death during Game 5 of the World Series, he cried in the dugout because of the personal touch Taveras had on his growth as a ballplayer.
Perhaps the biggest factor that the Cardinals will miss with Oscar Taveras in upcoming seasons is the passion he brought in the clubhouse. Teammates described him as an outgoing, energetic ballplayer who remained optimistic throughout the team’s struggles. His smile was just as powerful inside the dugout as his bat was on the field, and his enthusiasm helped the Cardinals pull together their third 90-win season in four years.
The Cardinals will inevitably miss the youthful spark Taveras adds to the lineup, especially as veterans like Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina continue to grind out their careers. He was a five-tool baseball player the Cardinals devoted themselves to build around for the future and could have been a household name over time.
Many successful baseball teams have rising stars that develop into difference makers and losing such a touted player would have harsh effects on any team. For instance, had the Angels not lost Nick Adenhart, their whole 2009 season could have ended up with more wins and a longer playoff run.
Oscar’s death could be a long-term dilemma for the Cardinals, but it will be an even longer-term problem for America’s pastime. Baseball lost a beautiful swing, a versatile athlete, and a perennial star, too soon.
A once promising career ends before it ever picked up, (and must now be continued in the Field of Dreams). Oscar Taveras may forever be in the Hall of Fame of what-ifs, but there’s no denying that he embraced every opportunity with the drive that’s declining in Major League Baseball today.